Catalonia Looks to Independence

Nosaltres decidim / We decide

Bill Bonnar on the emergence of a powerful independence movement in Catalonia

In January 2010 a Conference was held in Barcelona under the title; The Struggle for Socialism in Nations without a State. Sponsored in part by the Left Republican Party of Catalonia it included representatives from left parties from the Basque Country, Galicia and elsewhere. I spoke at the Conference on behalf of the Scottish Socialist Party; one of several meetings and events I attended in the course of a week of activities. Not surprisingly the conference was dominated by representatives from Catalonia. Perhaps the most interesting thing to emerge was the commonality of discussion. In particular, that independence should not be seen as an end in itself but as a means to an end. What was important was not just independence but what kind of independence. The Left, while being part of the general campaign for independence, had to forge a distinctive Left vision of what that independence would look like. Not surprisingly several key themes emerged. That the new independent state should be a republic, that it should have an economic system based on sustainable growth with a strong public sector, that environmental concerns should be a high priority, that the government should pursue policies aimed at the eradication of poverty and inequality and that it should pursue what was referred as a progressive foreign policy. While it was recognised that taken together this did not add up to socialism it was seen as a good starting point.

That was then. Nearly three years later it is clear that real advances have been made particularly in the Basque Country andCatalonia. In September nearly 2 million people brought Barcelona to a standstill in a demonstration in support of independence. This followed various opinion polls which show between 40% and 50% support for independence and a general trend for this to be increasing. What makes these polls interesting is that an increasing number of non-Catalans seem to be supporting independence. More than half the population of Catalonia is made up of Spaniards and nationals from other EEC countries. This was always seen as the guarantee that in any future referendum pro – independence voters would always be in a minority. This appears to be changing. The economic crisis which is engulfing Spain is fuelling movements for change and in Catalonia it is fuelling the desire for independence.

Like independence movements elsewhere there are different streams to this movement. A large part of this is cultural in nature around the language and culture of Catalonia. It would be like the independence struggle in Scotland being based in and around the Gaelic movement. The movement is very broad based with even some reactionary element directed against non-Catalans. The alternative is provided by the Left. Typically there are a number of Left organisations of which the most prominent is Esqerra Republicana de Catalunya (Republican Left of Catalonia). The party, under a different name, rose to prominence during the Spanish Civil war as part of the coalition which formed the Republican Government. During the Franco dictatorship it suffered violent repression before re-emerging and reforming in its current format.

It currently has ten seats in the Catalan Parliament and expects to make gains in elections later this year.

The party’s political positions were laid down at its 1993 Conference and contained in its Statement of Ideology.

  •  Esquerra – commitment to a Left agenda on social and economic issues.
  • Republican – commitment to the establishment of a modern republic forCataloniaand the rest ofSpain.
  • Catalunya – the creation of a united Catalan state based on the historic Principality of Catalonia . This includes  the current region of Catalonia and a neighbouring region in France.

On 28th November fresh elections will be held for the Catalan Parliament with every possibility of a pro-independence majority emerging. In part this is due to a hardening of attitude among those parties which have hitherto settled for devolved government. Most of these parties have now moved towards a more pro-independence position although are vague about the details. The most likely outcome will be a referendum on independence. The very fact of calling for such a referendum will provoke a political crisis with the central government in Madrid already declaring such a referendum would be illegal and refusing to recognise the result in advance. To say the least this would take the country into uncharted territory. The specific proposal on independence will largely depend on the balance of forces which emerge after the election in November; full independence or a kind of independence lite. This will also be shaped by the outcome of the referendum. The larger the majority for independence the more ambitious the pro-independence forces will be. It will also place the Madrid Government in an impossible situation with its non-recognition stance impossible to maintain.

The outcome could also have a dramatic effect on the rest of Spain; particularly in the Basque Country. With a powerful independence movement, increasingly led by the Left, the momentum provided events in Catalonia could overwhelm the Spanish Government hence their determination to hold the line.

While there are obvious similarities between the independence movement in Scotland and Catalonia there are also major differences.  The movement in Catalonia is very much centred on language and culture which can and does create tensions within the country.Catalonia has a recent history where the country suffered severe repression aimed at destroying Catalonian identity which has created an intense hostility to Madrid. Lastly, the Catalan vision of independence embraces a region in France. Securing that region is, at the moment, simply off the agenda.

The increasing likelihood that that Catalonia will become independent would prove an immense confidence booster to the struggle for independence in Scotland. Given that the No Campaign in Scotland will rely heavily on negative campaigning, having the example of small country successfully breaking away from a larger state can only have a positive effect on the campaign.

Red Square Movement Shakes Quebec

Parlons frais de scolarite /  Let's Talk Tuition Fees
“Let’s Talk Tuition Fees” – image scottmontreal on flickr

Canadian socialist David Camfield on the victorious student movement in Quebec

Quebec has been shaken by the most important social movement in the Canadian state since the 1970s. What began as a strike by students in Quebec’s universities and Collèges d’enseignement général et professionnel (CEGEPs, which most young people attend after high school) against a major increase in university tuition fees become a broader popular movement against the government of the Quebec Liberal Party (PLQ), headed by Jean Charest, and against neoliberalism.

To understand this movement, we need to look at the place of universities in Quebec society. The Canadian constitution makes education a responsibility of provincial governments. Before the 1960s, only a tiny percentage of the French-speaking majority in the province of Quebec attended university; university education was more common for members of the English-speaking minority, whose universities were better-funded. At the time, the capitalist class in Quebec was largely English-speaking – one feature of the national oppression of Quebec within the Canadian state.

 National Oppression

In the 1960s, a section of the French-speaking middle class launched an effort to modernize Quebec society that became known as the “Quiet Revolution.” One of its key features was the creation of a secular education system including new francophone universities that charged low tuition fees. This reform was linked with popular aspirations for national self-determination in an era that also saw a high level of working-class struggle. Accessible university education continues to be widely seen in Quebec as a valuable distinguishing feature of the Quebec nation.

A vibrant student movement emerged in the 1960s. Thanks to student activism, including strikes, tuition fees were frozen from 1968 to 1990. An attempt to raise fees in 1996 was beaten back by a resurgent student movement (though tuition for international students and other fees were increased). In 2005 an attempt to convert over $100 million of student grants into loans was met with a partially-successful student strike.

The Right Attacks

In March 2011, the centre-right and federalist Quebec Liberal (PLQ) government announced a fee increase of 75% over five years, beginning in 2012. The move was part of the government’s effort to advance neoliberalism in Quebec by introducing or increasing user fees for public services. In the words of its finance minister, the Charest government sought to carry out a “cultural revolution” in Quebec, where neoliberal ideology is not accepted as “common sense” – especially in the working class — to the same extent that it is in the rest of the Canadian state. The announcement spurred the student movement into action.

Quebec university and CEGEP students are organized into associations. Traditions and structures of democratic self-organization, such as general assemblies, are much stronger than they are in student unions outside Quebec. Local associations often affiliate to a Quebec-wide federation. One of these, the Association pour une solidarité syndicale étudiante (ASSE), promotes militant and democratic left-wing student unionism.

CLASSE Struggle

In December 2011, ASSE formed a coalition, CLASSE, which student associations not affiliated to ASSE could join if they accepted its platform and highly democratic way of functioning. CLASSE was intentionally designed to coordinate a student strike and proved a tremendous success.

The strike began on February 13 and spread quickly. The most common form of action was not attending classes and organizing picket lines to prevent people from entering buildings or classrooms. Students also carried out blockades of government offices, courthouses, banks, bridges and other targets. Students marched in support of locked-out smelter workers and joined with other groups protesting austerity measures. Art interventions and other cultural expressions of the movement gave the strike a growing public presence. The movement’s symbol, a red square, was soon being worn by tens of thousands of people and made visible in other ways on the streets and online.

On March 22, the number of strikers peaked, with around 300 000 of Quebec’s 400 000 university and CEGEP students on strike that day. That same day saw a demonstration of some 200 000 people in Montreal (to put this in perspective, Quebec’s population is about 8 million). This took the movement to a higher level, with more students voting to take ongoing strike action.

Broadening the Movement

The government tried to demobilize the movement by depicting students as spoiled brats and offering insubstantial concessions. This failed. The PLQ then turned to repression and hastily passed an anti-strike “special law.” This was a turning point. Instead of putting down the movement, the draconian law triggered its mutation. What had been a student movement supported by a significant minority of the population became a broad social movement against the unpopular PLQ government.

On May 22, the 100th day of the strike, demonstrations took place across Quebec. Some 250 000 people marched in Montreal. This was followed by night-time pot-banging “casserole” protests in many big-city neighbourhoods and towns. Union activists began to discuss solidarity action.

Although the movement slowed in the summer, demonstrations on June 22 and July 22 were still very large. Activists went on tour across Quebec to discuss the struggle and CLASSE’s radical manifesto.

PLQ Toppled

Unable to quell the movement and fearful of what an inquiry into corruption would reveal about PLQ fundraising when it resumed in the autumn, Charest called an election for September 4. His gamble failed: the Parti Quebecois (PQ, which has links to the SNP) narrowly succeeded in forming a minority government. But the election call did succeed in dispersing the mass movement. The anti-neoliberal and pro-independence Quebec Solidaire increased its share of the vote to 6% (less than expected) and gained a second seat in the legislature.

The new PQ government has repealed the fee increase and the “special law” – testimony to the power of the movement – but will seek to raise fees in a less dramatic way. The movement’s impact will be felt for years, for it has politicized Quebec society around the question of neoliberalism in a way that is unprecedented in the Canadian state. It has radicalized many people, especially youth, many of whom have gained valuable experience in mass mobilization and democratic self-organization. Activists formed in this movement will be critical for the future of the Left.

David Camfield is an editor of the Canadian publication New Socialist Webzine (newsocialist.org).

Paraguay’s Silent Coup

Fernando Lugo en Coronel Oviedo
Former Paraguayan President Fernando Lugo. Image fernandolugoapc on flickr

Alister Black looks at the lingering shadow of the dictators in South America

In 2008 the years of domination by the right wing Colorado Party, the party of the dictatorship, came to an end when a left wing bishop and liberation theologist, Fernando Lugo was elected President of Paraguay. Lugo promised change. He promised social reform to address the great inequalities in Paraguayan society and in particular he promised to tackle the central issue in Paraguay – land reform.

I visited Paraguay this summer a few weeks after the ‘parliamentary coup’ which overthrew Lugo. Driving through the streets of the cities like Ciudad del Este and Asuncion you could see some graffiti and posters denouncing the coup and calling for mobilisation. But the protests had begun to peter out. Speaking to Paraguayans many said they had voted for Lugo and opposed the coup, but all had criticisms of him. Most commonly they felt he had achieved little in the way of the change he had promised to bring about.

Yet Paraguay is also a country whose poverty and inequality is among the worst in the world (1) and this could be seen on every street. I passed a huge home that could only be described as a palace. It belonged to a former President, Cubas, and perfectly symbolised the corruption of the ruling elite. A few streets down a thriving ‘asentamiento’ of wood and tarpaulin homes was being built on occupied land by peasants coming in from the country seeking work. There were also some more permanent brick constructions with rigged up electricity and chickens running around the yard.

Understanding Paraguay

Paraguay is a relatively small South American country in terms of population but with a turbulent and violent history. It has suffered catastrophic wars which killed huge proportions of its people. The War of the Triple Alliance which Paraguay fought against Brazil, Uruguay and Argentina saw a possible 90% of the male population of the nation killed. The twentieth century saw the Chaco War over control of a semi-desert region where it was believed oil could be found. Britain played a bloody role in this conflict, encouraging it and arming both sides. Political instability led to a civil war in 1947 as different factions of the ruling class fought for control.

The instability ended in 1949 with the military dictatorship of Alfredo Stroessner and the Colorado Party. The Stroessner dictatorship lasted until 1989 and it was marked by international isolation (the few foreign embassies were from the likes of apartheid South Africa and Taiwan) and domestic oppression. One party rule also exarcerbated the corruption that came to plague the nation. Stroessner was ousted in 1989 by his son-in-law who had responsibilty for the nations borders and hence lucrative smuggling income. Fear of losing that post prompted the coup rather than any concern for democracy. There were some democratic reforms however, but the corrupt and deeply entrenched networks of the Colorado Party machine continued to dominate the country, acting in the interests of business and rich landowners.

Lugo

The election of Lugo promised more substantial change. However the hopes of many Paraguayans and those outside the country, were dashed in June this year when Lugo was impeached by the Chamber of Deputies and the impeachment confirmed by the upper house, the Paraguayan Senate. Colorado had already tried multiple times to impeach Lugo. The votes were overwhelming, 76-1 in the lower house and 39-4 in the upper house. Crucially Lugo’s ‘allies’ in the centre-right Liberal PLRA party turned against him this time.

The vote followed controversial events in Curuguaty in Paraguay’s countryside. The failure of land reform had forced more peasant groups to seize land for themselves. One group were evicted by the courts and resisted their eviction resulting in the deaths of 11 peasants and 6 police officers. Exactly what happened is far from clear and there is no real evidence that the campesinos opened fire first.

This was the pretext for Lugo’s impeachment. Lugo was given just 24 hours to prepare his defence against vague charges of ‘poor performance’. No evidence was presented relating to the main charges around events in Curuguaty. The process was unconstitutional.

Lugo’s supporters in the trade-unions, social and peasant organisations demonstrated and protested but there was no mass movement to defend his presidency, as had been seen when Chavez faced a coup in Venezuela.

Lugo’s Programme

One of the key features of Lugo’s Presidency was that he had no party of his own but build a coalition called the Patriotic Alliance for Change whose largest component was a centre-right party, the PLRA many of whom actively opposed the more radical parts of Lugo’s agenda.

Lugo had promised to enact reform in four key areas, tax, land, the public sector and the judiciary (2). Land reform in particular is key in a country where 85% of the land is owned by 2% of the population. In recent years agribusiness, mostly from Brazil, has been buying up Paraguayan land to grow profitable soya. Soya makes up 40% of Paraguay’s exports and brings in $2 billion. In the process they have kicked thousands of peasants off the land. These same interests of course, vehemently opposed Lugo’s programme of land reform through their representatives in the Colorado party and the other parties.

Opposition

The parliament consistently opposed Lugo. They blocked funding and cut back on existing programmes of health and social care. This made Lugo even more reliant on parliamentary allies to his right with a resultant dilution of his programme.

The media was deployed against Lugo. They raised issues around his character, particularly that he had fathered several children while still a bishop.

Another destabilising factor was the mysterious emergence of supposed leftist guerrillas, in what was a likely attempt to link Lugo to violent outrages, drawing in FARC, Chavez and anyone else they could throw in. Since the coup, the media has referred little to the so-called ‘EPP’ (Ejercito del Peublo Paraguayo).

Movement

Against this background Lugo stood little chance of carrying out his programme. This is particularily true because he failed to bring the movements which supported him together in a strong united front. Peasants, trade unionists, socialists, campaigners for democratic rights. Together they could have built a movement against the coup and in opposition to the right-wing parties of Colorado and PLRA who are two sides of the same coin.

Other leftist movements in the region have built powerful grassroots movements to defend and direct their struggle. Chavez and the PSUV are the best example but the Peronist movement of Argentinian President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner also has strong party and trade-union support and was able to draw on (or co-opt) the strength of the street movements and piqueteros of 2001.

Consequences

Reaction from other South American states has been strong however. Left of centre governments of various shades such as in Venezuela, Brazil and Argentina know that they cannot allow this coup to go unpunished. The US has remained silent and has not condemned the coup.

Paraguay has been suspended from the Mercosur trading block and replaced with Venezuela, leaving Paraguay far more isolated and at an economic disadvantage whilst strengthening the other nations who now benefit from closer links and greater access to Venezuelan oil.

The removal of Lugo has been a set back for Paraguay but the underlying problems of poverty, inequality and corruption are worsening. To solve them Paraguay will need to build powerful social movements for change that can resist the machinations of the corrupt ruling elite.

Notes

(1) “by 2008 Paraguay was one of the most unequal countries in Latin America with a Gini coefficient of 0.58 (the US is 0.47) and with one of the worst landownership concentrations in the world: 1 per cent own 77 per cent of the cultivable land.” Francisco Dominguez http://www.redpepper.org.uk/paraguay-a-well-rehearsed-coup/

(2) http://www.e-ir.info/2012/08/09/the-lightning-impeachment-of-paraguays-president-lugo/ Peter Lambert

Greece, Spain Portugal – the arc of resistance to austerity hardens

Gritos en cartones.

As Merkel, Cameron and the EU bosses tighten the screws on the working class of Europe, many Europeans are stepping up resistance. Murray Smith focuses on Greece, Spain and Portugal.

It sometimes seems as if Europe’s sovereign debt crisis has been going on forever. But in fact it really only manifested itself in 2010, a result of the bailing out of private banks with public money and other public spending due to the crisis. And in May of that year Greece became the first country to ask for help and to receive so-called “aid” – really, it cannot be repeated too often, loans that must be paid back – from the now infamous Troika IMF-ECB-European Commission. This aid was conditional on Greece adopting policies of austerity and structural reforms, all regularly supervised by those who have become known as the “men in black”, the inspectors of the Troika… In an article in the Guardian on October 8, Alexis Tsipras, leader of the radical left coalition Syriza, makes two key points. First of all, the money lent to Greece goes into an escrow account used for repaying past loans and interest on them and for recapitalizing private banks. It cannot be used otherwise, for example for useful social spending. Secondly he writes: “we believe that their aim is not to solve the debt crisis but to create a new regulatory framework throughout Europe that is based on cheap labour, deregulation of the labour market, low public spending and tax exemptions for capital”. That about sums it up. Greece became the guinea-pig for these policies. It would soon be followed by Ireland and Portugal, who also applied for bailouts within a year. But Alexis Tsipras was right to say “throughout Europe”. The Financial Times on October 2 revealed the existence of a draft agenda already circulated to EU governments that “would require all 17 eurozone members to sign on to the kinds of Brussels-approved policy programmes and timelines now negotiated only with bailout countries”.

Those may be the plans that Brussels, Berlin and Frankfurt have for the whole of Europe, and we can see everywhere that that is the direction in which things are going. But for the moment they are only being applied in such  a brutal fashion in Greece, Portugal and Ireland, and also in Spain and to a lesser extent Italy, two countries which may in their turn have to apply for aid from the Troika. It is therefore important to look not just at the effects on those countries but especially at how their peoples have been able to resist. From this point of view the countries that we will look at are Greece, Spain and Portugal. It would take much too long to describe in detail the hundreds of strikes, demonstrations and occupations that have taken place in those countries and indeed in others.  But in the course of this year, and even particularly this autumn, resistance seems to have taken on a new scale and a new dynamic is some countries. We are seeing the development of an ongoing, permanent mass movement, in Greece and Spain certainly and perhaps also in Portugal.

Greece

Greece is unquestionably the country that has suffered most from the policies of the Troika, aided and abetted, it must be said, by successive Greek governments.  It is easy to cite the basic figures: 24 per cent unemployment, 55 per cent youth unemployment, wages and pensions reduced by around a third, deep cuts in education and health. It is also necessary to be aware of the daily human consequences, children going hungry, lack of medicines, homelessness, a dramatic rise in the number of suicides. These policies are accompanied by a massive propaganda offensive, seeking both to convince the population hat it is responsible for the deficits and has to make sacrifices and to instill fear of the international consequences of any policies that would break from the dominant neo-liberal mould. Clearly, for large parts of the population this discourse no longer works, people no longer believe it. And as popular opposition increases the government imposes its policies in an increasingly authoritarian and repressive fashion. And alongside the growth in support for the radical Left, there is the emergence of Golden Dawn, a genuinely neo-Nazi formation that is now, according to polls, supported by 12 per cent of Greeks.

In the three countries we are considering, where does the opposition come from, how is it structured? In fact in each country we have seen three sources of resistance, not in the same proportions: the trade unions, the parties of the radical Left (to the left of social democracy), autonomous movements of young people.

Greek Movement

Opposition in Greece began as soon as the country applied for a bailout, with a general strike called by the two main confederations GSEE (private sector) and ADEDY (public sector) on May 5, 2010. Since then there have been more than a dozen one-day general strikes and innumerable sectoral strikes. It is of course easy to criticize the trade union leaderships which do not go beyond such strikes and who for a long time remained tied to PASOK. Nevertheless these strikes objectively constitute one element of popular resistance. The second is constituted by mobilizations of youth, whose origins go back to at least 2008 and the killing by police of a young school student. Particularly under the impact of events in Spain (see below) this took on a particularly organized form in the summer and autumn of 2011, with occupations of squares. But it never took on the dynamic or the scale of the movement in Spain. One reason was certainly the role played by the radical anticapitalist Left. In the 2009 general election the Greek Communist Party (KKE) and the Coalition of the Radical Left (Syriza) won respectively 7.54 and 4.6 per cent of the vote, compared to nearly 44 per cent for the victorious social-democrats of PASOK. Hardly enough to make the capitalists quake in their boots. A few months later Syriza (or more exactly, its main component, Synaspismos) suffered a split to the right, leading to the formation of the Democratic Left. However as the crisis progressed and austerity made itself felt, from the autumn of 2011  opinion polls began to show a level of support for the three parties of the radical Left of around 30 and sometimes nearly 40 per cent. Given the deep divisions between the three forces, these results repeated in a general election could just have provided one more example of the inability of the Left to unite. But these divisions were not some kind of genetic defect of the Left. They had political roots, in the mind-boggling sectarianism of the KKE and the orientation of DL to be a left pressure group on PASOK. And Syriza dealt with the question politically, developing an orientation that was both radical and unitary. Proposing a government of left forces committed to breaking with austerity and repudiating the agreements (memorandums) concluded with the Troika. Syriza thus emerged as far and away the dominant force to the left of PASOK and the KKE and DL paid the price for their political positions. In the May elections Syriza became the second political force in the country, with over 16 per cent. Now the capitalists were really quaking in their boots. The full battery of European institutions and governments was deployed to campaign against the danger of a Syriza victory in June, a danger narrowly avoided, as Syriza, with nearly 27 per cent, came a close second to the right-wing New Democracy.  It is worth looking at the extent of Syriza’s support as revealed in that election. It was the biggest party among all those aged 18-54 (45.5 per cent in the 18-24 age group) and among workers of both public and private sectors, the unemployed, students and the self-employed. Not surprisingly Syriza was the first party in all the working-class areas, especially in Greater Athens, which has almost half the country’s population. It is also important to note that as PASOK’s support melted away (12.28 per cent in June) and the party began to implode many activists joined Syriza, including MPs and trade unionists. Similarly, the KKE which had taken 8.48 per cent in May and refused even to talk to Syriza dropped to 4.5 per cent. Syriza, which was established in 2004 as a coalition, is now engaged in a process that should lead to it becoming a party next year.

Syriza

The existence of a force as representative as Syriza, a political alternative to the fragile coalition government, is the fundamental fact of Greek politics, and what makes the situation there different from any other country in Europe. Of course, if people were just sitting back and waiting to vote for Syriza in the next election, that would be a problem. But that is hardly case. The growth of Syriza is taking place in a context of ongoing mobilization. September 26 saw the latest (and the first since the elections) one-day general strike, with a demonstration of 100,000 in Athens and 15,000 in Salonika. The big battalions came from the public sector but there was a significant presence of the private sector, where to go on strike is much more likely to lead to workers being sacked. Even the employers’ organization recognized that 20 to 30 per cent of private sector workers joined the strike. And on October 8, in the face of an unprecedented police operation blocking off a large zone of Central Athens, thousands demonstrated against the visit of Angela Merkel.

Given the depth of the recession and the scale of the attacks, it is not inconceivable that the coalition government could fall – for example that its two weakest components, PASOK and DL, could be unable to keep their parties on board. Already cracks are emerging. On October 14 the Left Initiative current in PASOK demanded that the party quit the government. This in a context of negotiations with the Troika, which is now posing more demands, including increasing the working week from five to six days. The possibility of a left government led by Syriza is a real possibility. That would be an enormous step forward, but it would also be fraught with danger and difficulties. A left government would be subject to all sorts of economic and political sabotage and pressure, internally and externally. And Syriza is very conscious of the fact that at the present time there is no other country where the radical Left is in the same position as it.

New Movements

In Spain and Portugal, one of the main ways in which resistance has been expressed is through the appearance of new social-political movements organized by the young people who are among the main victims of austerity. This is an important development, which began in both countries in 2011. It is important, because young people are organizing themselves without waiting for parties or unions. But it should not be looked at in isolation or elevated into a panacea. In fact if we look at the recent mobilizations in Spain and Portugal we will see that unions and parties are involved, as well as the new movements.

Although Spain is not yet in the situation of receiving a bailout, the general opinion is that it will soon find itself in that situation. We could sum it up by saying that the economics (banks, sovereign debt) add up to such an eventuality, but Spanish politics militate against it, the Rajoy government being manifestly reluctant to be saved, that is to have conditions imposed and supervised by the Troika. In this respect Spain is actually no different from the three bail-out countries, all of whom resisted being saved for as long as possible. The reason is simple: when the men in black arrive to dictate austerity measures and structural reforms, it is electoral and social poison and it has already led to governments falling in Ireland, Greece and Portugal. It is not that the governments in question actually object to austerity and reforms, they simply want to do them in their own way in terms of their own national situation. Greece is already in a situation of limited independence, of being an EU protectorate. Portugal is moving towards the same situation. On the other hand international politics, the pressure of the EU the ECB and of course the markets are pushing Spain towards a bail-out, whose first and principal aim is to guarantee the repayment of loans and interest on them.

Spanish Crisis

If this happens to Spain it will exacerbate an already tense social and political crisis. Spain has already gone a long way in applying austerity policies and reforms. They began under the Socialist government of Zapatero in 2010 and have been continued and accentuated since the victory of Rajoy and the right-wing Popular Party in the November 2011 elections. The first striking result was the appearance in May 2011 of the indignados or M 15 movement, a movement of young people clearly related to Greek-style levels of unemployment (over 50 per cent for young people) and no prospects On May 15, operating via social networks, hundreds of thousands of young people occupied squares in towns and cities all over Spain, including Madrid and Barcelona. These occupations lasted for weeks while the indignados worked out their ideas. Finally they evacuated the squares and fanned out to engage in local campaigns. The movement was not linked to any political party. It would however be completely inaccurate to describe it as apolitical. It criticized not only the social and economic policies of the government but the limitations of the two-party system in Spain, demanding “real democracy” and produced positive proposals. These were expressed notably in a remarkable 16-point document adopted by the Madrid assembly in Puerta Del Sol on June 5, 2012.

Indignados

The indignados never went away. They mobilized for the international day of action on October 15, 2011 and again in May 2012 on the first anniversary of the movement. But the focus shifted as the trade unions began to move. It has to be said that the role of the union leaderships in the first period of the crisis, under the Zapatero government, was less than glorious. But after the victory of the Right they began to move, with mass demonstrations in February and a general strike on March 29. As the unions came to the fore, the M 15 was part of the mobilizations, albeit with a definite distrust of the union leaders.

On July 19, the two main union confederations, the CC.OO and UGT, called another strike, involving smaller unions and social movements in its organization. A massive 3.5 million people demonstrated across the country. The July 19 strike had been preceded by the March for Dignity of the Asturian coal miners fighting to defend their mines and jobs, from the Asturias to Madrid. This autumn saw a new wave of mobilization, starting with a demonstration in Madrid of 500,000 people on September 15. Then an initiative came from the M15 movement, or rather from what appear to be radical spin-offs from it, Coordinadora 25S and Plataforma En Pie! (“Stand Up!”) On three successive evenings, on 25-26-27 September, up to 50,000 demonstrators tried to encircle the Parliament, calling for the resignation of the government and declaring “democracy kidnapped”. There were violent clashes with police. A mass demonstration took place the following Saturday, September 29.  On September 26 there was a general strike called by the Basque trade unions (linked to the Basque national movement, not part of the Spanish confederations). Unlike on March 29, the strike was not backed by the CC.OO and the UGT, so it was unevenly supported, depending on the sectors and workplaces. However the demonstrations were massive, with a high participation of young people. Further demonstrations took place all over Spain on October 7. Another one-day general strike is envisaged for November 14, the same day chosen by the Portuguese unions.

Portugal

In Portugal, the first signs of autonomous movement among young people were seen even earlier than in Spain. On March 12, 2011 demonstrations against precarious work organized on Facebook brought 300,000 people into the streets, 200,000 of them in Lisbon. A week before, the organizers had hoped for a demonstration of 10,000…But subsequently there was a downturn in mobilization. In April 2011 Portugal applied for a bailout and a few weeks later elections brought a right-wing government to power committed to carrying out the terms of an agreement with the Troika. The Socialists, now in opposition, also backed the agreement. The two forces to the left of the SP, the Portuguese Communist Party and the Left Bloc fared badly in the elections. The PCP held its vote stable, but the Left Bloc lost half its votes and half its seats. Since then there have certainly been protests – two one-day general strikes, big demonstrations. But not on the scale of Greece or even Spain. Overall, up until recently a large section of the Portuguese people accepted austerity with a certain resignation, helped by an ongoing campaign in the media about how necessary austerity was and how things would soon get better. That all changed dramatically on September 15.  A national demonstration was called by a collective of 29 people. Word went out via social media in the same way as for the demonstrations in March 2011 and the M15 in Spain. The result was a million demonstrators across a series of Portuguese cities on September 15, including 500,000 in Lisbon – the biggest demonstration there since May 1 1974, a few days after the fall of the Salazar dictatorship. The reason for the breakthrough was a measure that had been announced in the government’s latest austerity package on September 7. It provided a particularly clear expression of who the government was helping and who it was hurting. The measure envisaged deducting an extra 7 per cent in social security contributions from workers’ salaries and simultaneously reducing employers’ contributions by 5.75 per cent. This was described by one observer as the last straw that broke the camel’s back. The government was forced to withdraw the measure but has announced new tax increases to replace it. But the genie is out of the bottle and since then there have been fresh protests.

Spain – Regions and Nations

In terms of the social situation, Spain is only comparable to Greece, which explains the scale of the ongoing mobilizations. But the crisis is also laying bare the country’s political fault lines. In particular it is underlining the limits of what is called the “Transition”, the period from the death of Franco in 1975 until the adoption of a new constitution in 1978. In at least three spheres: the national question (limited autonomy, no right to self-determination), the amnesty law (no prosecution for crimes committed by the Franco dictatorship), the question of democracy (no republic, but a “parliamentary monarchy”). Spain came out of the Transition with a considerable degree of decentralization, powers devolved to the regions. But the term “regions” covers the historic Basque, Catalan and Galician nations, regions with a strong identity like Andalusia, and ordinary Spanish provinces which were not even demanding the devolution they got. In fact the whole operation was an attempt to make granting statutes of (limited) autonomy to Catalonia and the Basque Country acceptable to the Spanish Right by wrapping it up in a general process of decentralization. The reality was however that both nations got rights in excess of those given to the Spanish regions. The Basques, but not the Catalans, got a statute of autonomy with the right to control their own tax revenues.

Under cover of the role of the regions in the overall deficit the Rajoy government is trying to recentralize, to repatriate powers to Madrid. But this is not just an economic issue. There is an offensive against Catalan identity and language, with provocative declarations from Spanish politicians, for example the Minister of Education talking about the need to “Hispanicize” Catalonia. The Catalan response was a massive pro-independence march of 1.5 million people in Barcelona on September 11, Catalan National Day. Faced with no concessions from Madrid the Catalan government has called a snap election for November 25 which may give them a mandate for a referendum on independence. The present Catalan government is certainly not on the left and applies its own austerity policies. It is also reluctant in its support of independence. But it is being pushed forward by the mass movement. And other, left independentist currents are developing and will stand in the elections. The national question is likely to become even sharper after regional elections on October 21 where the left independentists of EH Bildu are seeking to repeat their success in last year’s local elections in the Basque country. Even in the more conservative Galicia, an alliance between the local Izquierda Unida (IU, United Left) and a new movement ANOVA, which has been described as the “Galician Syriza” may make a modest breakthrough.

Spain is heading for a political and constitutional crisis and all the chickens of the half-baked Transition are coming home to roost. Not only is the government of the Popular Party, which was of course founded by former Francoists, revealing its deep-seated Spanish chauvinism, but officers of the Spanish armed forces, who under the Amnesty Law of 1977 were never pursued for crimes against humanity committed under the Franco regime, are making threatening declarations. Leading right-wing politicians are demanding that the statute of autonomy be suspended and the Civil Guard sent into Catalonia and the association of retired officers is threatening Catalan politicians with being tried by military tribunals for high treason.

In Portugal the situation is quite different in that respect, due to the way the dictatorship was overthrown by a revolution in 1974, the role the army played in it and the heritage of a revolution that, although it was prevented from becoming the socialist revolution many of its participants wanted, has left serious trace in Portuguese society. Thus, on 14 September, 2012, the Officers Association of the Portuguese Armed Forces (AOFA) adopted a declaration which affirmed that “‘the military can never be an instrument of repression for their fellow citizens, because according to the Constitution we swore to defend them”. It went on to make very sharp criticisms of government policies, difficult to imagine on the part of serving officers in most other countries.

Radical Left

The level of mobilization in Spain is fast approaching Greek levels, and hopefully resistance in Portugal will now grow stronger. The situation of the radical Left is obviously less advanced than in Greece, but far from marginal. In Portugal an opinion poll in September showed the PCP on 13 per cent and the Left Bloc on 11 per cent, a big improvement on 2011. Considering that relations between the two parties seem to be improving, that could be the beginning of a serious alternative. Furthermore relations, between the new social movement and the parties seem not so bad; several of the 29 people who made the call for the September 15 demonstration are Left Bloc members. On this level, things are more problematic in Spain. The United Left doubled its vote in  2011 compared to the previous elections and has now pretty much doubled again in opinion polls, at 12-13 per cent. It has sought to open out and had some success in collaborating with the M15; some figures from the movement stood on the IU lists in the 2011 elections, at least one being elected. However, the evolution of some sectors of the M15 towards what may be the beginning of political organizations may mean that developments on the left will be more complicated in Spain.

This article has dealt with three countries, which are the most advanced at this point. But of course that does not cover the whole scenario. Movements of resistance are weaker in Ireland and Italy, for reasons that can be understood in each case, but they exist and the situation could change quickly, particularly in Italy. Nor have we dealt with the situation in Central and Eastern Europe, where not only are austerity policies being applied in many countries, but there have been important movements of resistance, notably in Romania and the Czech Republic. One country however that deserves to be mentioned is France, where we may be seeing the lull before the storm. President Francois Hollande and his Socialist government are coming under increasing pressure to renege on their election promises and fall into line by applying austerity policies and labour and pension reforms. The odds are that they will gradually give in to these pressures. In this situation it is not unimportant that there is a strong opposition on the left. The Left Front, which had won four million votes in the presidential election, launched in September a campaign against France signing the Treaty on Stability, Coordination and Governance, usually called the Fiscal Pact, designed to set austerity in stone. This was a point on which Hollande had very clearly capitulated, in spite of his election promise not to sign the pact unless it was renegotiated. On September 30, 80,000 people demonstrated in Paris against France signing – a front involving not just the Left Front but other political forces, including the NPA, and dozens of trade unions and associations. The Greens, who are part of the government, decided to vote against and most of their MPs did so, as of course did the Left Front MPs. Very significantly, so did 20 Socialist MPs, 9 more abstaining, in spite of huge pressure from the party leadership.  The significance of the fact that the first national movement of opposition to a decision of the Socialist government came from the left was not lost on the political world or the bourgeois media. It augurs well for the future.

Hillsborough Disaster: Truth at last – now demand justice

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Richie Venton, SSP national trade union organiser, is a Liverpool supporter and was the Merseyside regional organiser of the socialist organisation Militant from 1980-1992

Words can only begin to hint at what the Hillsborough Independent Panel’s Report signifies.
A victory for the truth over the pernicious lies poured out by police chiefs, press and politicians – who tried to frame the 96 who died that terrible day in April 1989.
A victory for the superhuman tenacity, courage and heroism of the victims’ families and other fans who have fought for justice for 23 years – overwhelmingly working class people, with no resources but a deep well of determination and strong principles.
Overwhelming relief and vindication, tinged with renewed sadness, for the families of the 96 who perished in this man-made disaster: at last their loved ones’ names have been cleared.
A new wave of bitter outrage at the revelation 41 of the 96 could still be alive today, but for the incompetence of the police chiefs, which meant only 2 of 48 ambulances that arrived actually reached the pitch.
A renewed unity and sense of their own strength in challenging the authorities – not just for the indescribably brave family campaigners, but for all Liverpool fans, and indeed the whole city’s working class population.
Fury, and for some, utter disbelief at the blatant, corrupt cover-up by police chiefs, as they crudely doctored documents and witness statements – with successive Tory and Labour governments aiding and abetting their inhuman smearing of the dead in order to camouflage their own responsibility for the slaughter 23 years ago.

Class hatred

And after an initial attempt to palm off the clamour for justice with 24 hours of apologies and a shift back to trivial ‘business as usual‘ in the media, this naked expose of corruption in ‘high’ places has now forced the Crown Prosecution Office and Independent Police Complaints Commission to initiate an unprecedented scale of inquiry into police officers and the football authorities, with the potential of it leading to charges of gross misconduct and even manslaughter.
At last, a generation later, some hope of justice for those who died and those who have tirelessly challenged the most monstrous lie-machine in modern Britain.
Whilst pressing for prosecutions of those responsible, and re-opening of the inquests on the 96, we should not lose sight of the wider and deeper implications of this appalling episode.
It reveals a system that is steeped in class hatred for working class people, with the establishment, all the various arms of the state, implicated – a brutal reminder of just how low these people in power are prepared to stoop to retain their power and privileges.

Millions shaken

In some respects a great deal that is in the Report was known already 23 years ago. But its great merit is to have documented 450,000 pages of documentary evidence, piecing together the horror story and bringing it all out in the open.
Millions of people have been touched by the revelations, shaken to the core in their assumptions about the police, press and ruling powers.
Back in 1989, many of us warned of a monstrous cover-up by the police authorities, senior judges, Tory government and the media – the various arms of the ‘establishment’. Little did any of us know that it would take a whole generation, 23 years, for the truth to come out, after successive Tory and Labour governments had helped to keep the lid on what was known to those at the top.

Police savagery

At the time, in articles in the socialist press, I branded the initial West Midlands police inquiry into the South Yorkshire policing operation at Hillsborough as being a case of the Devil investigating the actions of Satan.
Some of us had lived through the savage class brutality of the Tories during the miners’ strike four years before Hillsborough – with Thatcher’s use of South Yorkshire and other police forces as a well-fed, well-paid, beefed-up government militia that treated working class people as scum, rampaging like uniformed thugs in the pit villages.
But even veteran socialists are still gob-smacked at the crudely blatant corruption of the police, who altered 164 police statements – in 116 cases to completely remove anything critical of the police actions at Hillsborough.

Top rank forgers

>Senior police officers, including the subsequently knighted Sir Norman Bettison, and the solicitor representing South Yorkshire police, supervised the recording of junior police officers’ recollections of events that day. In contrast to the normal procedure of writing up their notes in official police notebooks – which can then be legally requisitioned as evidence in any court case – the police were instructed to write them on loose sheets of paper. Then they were doctored under the vigilant eye of police chiefs.
Later, these top-rank forgers offered the excuse that amendments were made to remove ‘opinion’ about the fans.
That was a cynical, dirty lie: the documents published by the Independent Panel reveal that not a single case of this happened; plenty of vicious ‘opinions’ about fans remained in the amended statements – but in 116 junior officers’ statements, all their original comments critical of the policing that tragic day were removed.
Similar corrupt doctoring of eye-witness statements by ambulance workers were conducted by the chiefs of the ambulance service.

Tragedy waiting to happen

This was literally a tragedy waiting to happen, mostly through a combination of the blatant failure of the football owners to invest in crowd safety measures, and the refusal by police chiefs to learn from and act on their own incompetent performance.
They had plenty of fresh warning: the very same FA semi-final, between the same Liverpool and Notts Forest, had been held at the very same Hillsborough ground the previous season, 1988. Overcrowding, lack of ground safety measures and incompetent policing had led to a near-disaster, with fans being crushed, but no fatalities.
But absolutely nothing was done to improve matters after the review of these events, either by Sheffield Wednesday’s profit-conscious owners or the heads of the South Yorkshire Police.

They framed the dead!

People at the match told me 23 years ago how they arrived to scenes of utter chaos at the turnstiles. Liverpool supporters had complained in advance about ticket allocation not reflecting the respective numbers from Liverpool and Nottingham Forest. There was no proper direction of fans to turnstiles, with only two policemen outside Leppings Lane!
Fans thronged into the middle terraces, even though the side terraces were half empty: stewarding was almost non-existent.
Overcrowding in the middle terraces was clearly visible by at least 2.30pm, or earlier; a clear half hour before the 3pm kick-off. But whilst doing nothing to address this, failing to usher fans into the plentiful spaces on the side terraces, the police officers in charge vastly compounded the crush by ordering the opening of Gate C (one of the Leppings Lane exits) – to reduce the logjam at the turnstiles, where it was clear fans would not gain access until at least 3.30.
Instead of delaying the kick-off, they tried to shove thousands of fans through Gate C as well as turnstiles like cattle, with the added disastrous result that Gate C led them straight down a steep tunnel and back up into the already-overcrowded middle sections.
And in their vilification of the dead and injured, the same police chiefs who ordered the opening of Gate C then told the media that afternoon that the gate had been broken down by fans – a malicious strand to their lies about “drunken, ticketless Liverpool fans” being the cause of the disaster.

Prisons not palaces

The root cause of this human tragedy was the way the football authorities regarded working class people as sources of vast profit, but also inherently violent thugs.
In the years before, there had been a sustained vilification of fans – and in those days football was almost exclusively the sport of the working class – by the media and government, branding them as hooligans, forging ahead with plans to introduce ID cards, in tandem with plans for ID Cards for the hated poll tax.
They built high perimeter fences, with narrow emergency exit gates that acted as traps rather than escape routes in any emergency…because they regarded it as an issue of crowd control, rather that one of crowd safety for people investing their modest weekly incomes in ‘the beautiful game’.

Profits before lives

The clubs failed to re-invest their profits in ground safety and comfort for the people who made the pools companies £661m profits from football the year before Hillsborough alone.
Many of the grounds were more like clapped out cowsheds, prisons with their perimeter fences, rather than palaces of entertainment. Hillsborough, capacity 54,000, had no proper medical facilities.
Fans had no say; football is like any other capitalist enterprise.
They fenced fans into pens, more accurately cages, like a sub-human species. The police were drilled to treat them with contempt, and arrests, rather than cooperate with supporters’ organizations in protection of crowd health and safety.

41 could have lived

As the crush began, the police stopped ambulances getting onto the pitch, falsely telling them that it wasn’t safe as the fans were rioting. That’s why many of the 41 who could have survived died that day.
Rows of police, three deep, were lined up outside the cages at the goalmouth where people were dying. Eyewitnesses at the time told us how police ignored pleas for help: shoving the fence back into position when fans desperately tried to smash it down as a means of escape; refusing to help a child gasping for breath who was passed over the heads of the fans; truncheoning a group of fans who managed to get onto the pitch to try and rip down the railings.
This callous failure to act as a rescue service largely lay in the previous training of police as unthinking, obedient servants of the police chiefs, who in turn deployed their forces on behalf of the Tories against mining communities and disaffected young people, and whose attitude to Liverpool working class people in particular was steeped in class hatred.

Tory hatred of Liverpool

It is no mere coincidence that the police mercilessly doctored the evidence in order to smear Liverpool fans and hide their own scandalous role. And Thatcher’s Tory government’s fingerprints are all over this monstrous frame up.
Only four years earlier, hundreds of thousands of the city’s working class, led in mass action for jobs and services by socialists, had inflicted a decisive defeat on the Iron Lady of capitalist reaction.
Mass demos of 50-60,000, general strikes and a determined, militant upsurge of workers united in action had won £60m in government funds to create massive improvements in jobs, housing and public services.
Liverpool was an inspiration to workers across the UK and beyond – and the target of ruthless revenge by the Tories and their media lickspittles.
They portrayed Liverpool people as violent dole-cheats, mindlessly militant, worthy of being taught a harsh lesson.
They discussed in the Tory Cabinet about organising the “managed decline” of Liverpool – something pursued through systematic workplace closures.
Thatcher made the trip north the day after the Hillsborough Disaster, 16th April 1989, to meet with South Yorkshire Police chiefs, no doubt to endorse their launch of a propaganda offensive against the victims. In part this was to protect her loyal protectors during the momentous class confrontation of the 1984-5 miners’ strike – the civil war without bullets – but it was further fuelled by Thatcher’s and the Tories’ desire to avenge their government’s defeat by the rebellious Scouse working class, led by socialists, in 1984.

Press vitriol

The demonisation of Liverpool’s working class came out in its full inglorious venom after Hillsborough.
The press didn’t even have the decency to wait until the dead were buried before spewing out their vitriol.
A Sheffield Tory MP, Irvine Patnick, passed the Sun a packet of vicious lies, peddled by police chiefs to a local Sheffield press agency (White‘s), which the Murdoch rag gleefully published. This accused Liverpool fans of being “drunken animals”, of “urinating on the dead and police”, of “mugging dead bodies”, of “assaulting firefighters”.
The Report confirms what we argued in 1989: this was a monstrous lie on a monumental scale – designed to blame the victims for their own deaths and stop awkward questions being asked about the role of the FA, the unsafe state of the football grounds, and especially the role of the police. In fact it further reveals that the police tested dead children for evidence of drunkenness.
Boris Johnson, the extreme rightwing Tory London Mayor who basks in a carefully created disguise of buffoonery, wrote in the Spectator magazine editorial that Liverpool “is wallowing in victim status” after Hillsborough.
Edward Pearce of the Times thundered “Liverpool is the world capital city of self pity…why are you treated like animals? The plain answer is that a good and sufficient minority of you behave like animals.”
The fangs of these Tory animals were revealed, and working class people should never forget that that is the true face of capitalist politicians and their pet press.

Re-open the Inquests

>One of the multiple bodies of the establishment knee-deep in this obscene cover up was the Crown Prosecution Services’ mini-inquests and Coroner‘s Court, presided over by the CPS’s Dr Stefan Popper.
The evidence at the mini-inquests was viciously slanted and selective, feeding the media’s line about drunken disorder by announcing the alcohol level in each of the victims.
Popper took an arbitrary decision to assume all the victims had died in the first few minutes of the crush, and therefore refused to investigate anything that happened after 3.15pm, the time the first ambulance arrived on the pitch.
This was instrumental in the cover-up; the 3.15pm cut-off time meant all evidence regarding the response of the emergency services (and therefore whether some of the 96 could have survived even after the crush) was ruled “inadmissible” by the Coroner‘s Court.
The Hillsborough Families consistently challenged this decision, but to no avail – until the Independent Panel’s documentation blew apart the authorities’ excuses for the 3.15 cut-off point.
The Coroner’s verdict for all the victims was ‘accidental death’, attributed to asphyxiation. The assertion was that nobody could have survived for more than a couple of minutes. That is perhaps the most cruel revelation of the Independent Panel Report: medical evidence, involving cloning of the brain, shows that 41 of those who died did not die almost instantaneously, but survived long enough to have been revived, given the right and punctual medical attention.
And other medical experts have subsequently estimated the toll could be as high as 58 out of the 96.
That fact has been deliberately buried for 23 years so as to avoid the finger of blame pointing at the incompetence of senior police and senior ambulance service officers – both of whom doctored junior staff statements to remove all reference to the appalling chaos caused by those in charge of the emergency response.

Labour betrayal of working class

One of the most appalling recent revelations, hot on the heals of the Independent Panel’s Report, is the documentary confirmation that the Labour government which replaced the Tories in 1997 sustained the cover up of the real facts, prolonging the pain and indignity of the victims’ families and the vilification of the reputations of the 96 by a clear extra 15 years.
Within five weeks of taking office, Labour Home Secretary Jack Straw had made up his mind there was no need for a further Inquiry into the causes of the tragedy.
Whilst assuring Hillsborough Family campaigners he would leave no stone unturned in seeking the truth, he cynically organised Labour’s own cover-up, in connivance with PM Blair.

On 5th June 1997 Straw wrote to Attorney General John Morris:
“I am certain that continuing public concern will not be allayed with a reassurance from the Home Office that there is no new evidence. I therefore propose that there should be an independent examination of the alleged new evidence by a senior legal figure.”
On 9th June he rammed home the same cynical calculation in a secret Memo to Tony Blair, fearing the public would refuse to accept their verdict from the government, and that it had to come from an independent source instead.
Late in June Straw met the hand-picked ‘senior legal figure/independent source’, Lord Justice Stuart-Smith, appointed to lead the review. Straw told him his officials had already looked at the case and concluded “there was not sufficient evidence to justify a new inquiry”. So he conveyed his scepticism to the judge before he even started his Review.
On 26th June, a Note of a discussion between Home Office Minister Alun Michael (Straw’s junior) with Des Parkinson, secretary of the Police Association of England and Wales, reveals that:
“Jack Straw was very concerned to avoid starting a hare running. As a result there had been some ‘creative thinking’ in the Home Office to find a way of testing the evidence without reopening the whole affair.”
This is in stark contrast to the weasel words of Straw in a statement to the House of Commons four days later, on 30th June:
“I am determined to go as far as I can to ensure that no matter of significance is overlooked and that we do not reach a final conclusion without a full and independent examination of the evidence.”
The Stuart-Smith Inquiry dragged out for seven months and predictably concluded there was no case for a new Inquiry – and utterly failed to investigate evidence that police statements from the fateful day had been substantially rewritten.
No wonder Margaret Aspinall, whose 18-year-old son James died, responded to these recent revelations by stating: “What he [Straw] did was deceitful. All governments let us down, not just the Conservatives.”

This was an appalling example of Labour’s betrayal of working class people in their devoted defense of all arms of the capitalist establishment.

Never again!

Successive Inquiries and successive Tory and Labour governments buried the truth, terrified of the backlash against institutions that the rich rely on to maintain their power. But they reckoned without the Hillsborough Justice campaigners, who were adamant in their demand ‘Never again – justice for the 96′.
This victory for working class people in exposing the truth should not be the end of the matter. Apologies without justice mean nothing. The Hillsborough families are rightly demanding the reopening of the inquests, which were part of the cover-up, with their ‘accidental deaths’ verdict. That, and the call for prosecutions of those who were in charge of this man-made disaster, are the next steps towards justice.
The apologies from the Sun editor of the time, some police chiefs (though even now, not all of them), Boris Johnson and David Cameron are too little, too late. They had little choice but to apologise, given the devastating impact of the truth revealed; not to do so could have led to the Tory government’s downfall, and irreversible damage to the standing of the police.
But already within 24 hours of the Report, there were signs they wanted to make this a one-day wonder of apologies, swiftly followed by days of distraction with stories of tasteless, intrusive pictures of topless Royals. For the sake of those who perished, they must not succeed.

Justice at last??

In the wake of the damning, irrefutable public exposé of the role of senior police in the Independent Panel’s Report, unprecedented investigations of serving and retired police officers and bosses of the football authorities has been launched by both the Crown Prosecution Service and the Independent Police Complaints Commission.
Those facing potential charges of gross misconduct or even manslaughter include Chief Constable Sir Norman Bettison, who had tried to dodge the full consequences of his role in the unforgivable cover-up by first of all apologizing whilst provoking fury with the remark that “Liverpool fans had made policing more difficult than it should have been”, and then by announcing his retirement on a full, generous pension next March.
The scale of the CPS and IPCC investigations have the potential, at least, of starting to bring about some measure of justice – although the public outcry at the revelations of the truth which has been instrumental in forcing this action from the authorities will need to remain as eternal vigilance to ensure justice is done.
And the mid-September Panel Report’s damning revelations to millions has been joined by the current flood of revelations about the despicable sexual abuse by Jimmy Saville, and in particular the cover-up by that pivotal wing of the media, the BBC.
Taken together, these monumental scandals mean the powers-that-be will be terrified of a complete meltdown in the public’s faith in the media, police, prosecution services, allegedly independent complaints bodies, judiciary and governments; hence their obligation to be seen to do something about it, even if it has taken them 23 long, cruel years to even start.

Monument to the 96

In continuing the struggle for justice, democracy, accountability and socialism, I stand by the words I wrote in April 1989:
“They are desperate to cover up the real culprits – the police, the Tory ministers, the football clubs who just want our ticket money. They do nothing about the clapped out, unsafe grounds, which are part of the whole rotten free enterprise system which the Tories and their press uphold…
The unity of working class people in this hour of sorrow cuts across the rivalries which big business fosters in order to reap profits…
The messages on the sympathy cards are careful not to appear controversial in deference to the bereaved. But the collective grief does not prevent the collective rage. The anger at the treatment of fans by the football authorities peeps through even in sympathy cards…
One day the silent, choked up rage of these two million people [the number who poured into Anfield to pay tribute to the 96 in the first week after the tragedy -RV] will be turned on the authorities responsible for this needless suffering and death. They will erect the best possible monument to the fallen 96 – a society where men, women and children can work, rest and play without fear of poverty or death for profit’s sake.”

Paul Robeson – Ol’ Man River

Paul Robeson
Paul Robeson

Bill Scott on one of the greats of working class culture

Ol’ man river, Dat ol’ man river
He mus’ know sumpin’, But don’t say nuthin’,
He jes’ keeps rollin’, He keeps on rollin’ along.

He don’ plant taters, He don’t plant cotton,
An’ dem dat plants’em is soon forgotten,
But ol ‘man river, He jes keeps rollin’along.

You an’ me, we sweat an’ strain,
Body all achin’ an’ racked wid pain,
Tote dat barge! Lif’ dat bale!
Git a little drunk, An’ you land in jail.

Ah gits weary, An’ sick of tryin’
Ah’m tired of livin’, An’ skeered of dyin’,
But ol’ man river, He jes’keeps rolling’ along.
.
Let me go ‘way from the Mississippi,
Let me go ‘way from de white man boss;
Show me dat stream called de river Jordan,
Dat’s de ol’ stream dat I long to cross.

O’ man river,, Dat ol’ man river,
He mus’ know sumpin’, But don’t say nuthin’
He jes’ keeps rollin’, He keeps on rollin’ along.

 

You might well ask how a show-tune written in a white lyricist’s approximation of 19th Century US Southern States Negro patois could ever be considered “radical song”.

The lyrics of Ol’ Man River were written in 1927 for the musical “Showboat” by Oscar Hammerstein. Hammerstein, who went on to write many more successful musicals in partnership with Richard Rodgers consistently wrote anti-racist themes into his work – particularly in the musicals “South Pacific” and “Carmen Jones”.

Thus despite “Showboat” being a commercial musical based on a, then, best-selling novel it had, for its time, radical and progressive themes. It questioned the Southern States’ “miscegenation” laws that forbade marriage between Black and White Americans.  It also bestowed a stoic dignity on the character of “Joe” a black ex-slave who acts as the musical’s “Greek chorus”. Such themes and serious roles for Black actors were new to American theatre and saw the otherwise highly successful musical’s performance banned in parts of the South.

So far so good but a song about stoic acceptance of one’s lot in life is hardly radical. But that can depend on the singer and the performer most associated with this particular song was black activist Paul Robeson.

Robeson, the son of a freed slave, was the first black man to qualify in law (cum laude) from Rutgers College in the USA and the first African American to play as an All American college football player.  He was also a world-renowned singer & actor, a leading civil rights activist and socialist. Robeson also had strong associations with the workers movement in Britain and Scotland.

Robeson first came to Britain to star in the London production of Show Boat in 1928. While performing there he met a group of unemployed miners who had walked to London to draw attention to the hardship South Wales had endured in the aftermath of the General Strike. This began a long association between Robeson and the miners union.

Robeson settled in Britain during the 30s and starred in a number of British films returning to the US to star in the first film version of Showboat (1936). He also starred in a number of plays in Britain such as Eugene O’Neil’s “Emperor Jones” including one production at Edinburgh’s Playhouse.  In 1938 Robeson sang in Glasgow at a benefit concert for the Republican side in the Spanish Civil War. Robeson also travelled to Madrid that year.  When he sang at the front for Republican troops the guns on both sides fell silent to listen to his magnificent bass voice.

1938 was also significant in that from that year forwards Robeson performed a version of Ol’ Man River that was radically different from Hammerstein’s original. Except for very minor changes the lyrics of the song as Robeson performed it in the 1936 film version of the show were those that Hammerstein wrote in 1927. But, when appearing on Broadway, Robeson and Hammerstein had violent arguments when, during a rehearsal, Robeson changed the line, “Tote that barge! / Lift that bale! / Git a little drunk, / An’ you land in jail…”, to ““Tote that barge and lift dat bale!/ You show a little grit / And you lands in jail..”.

Hammerstein objected to any mere performer, even one as gifted as Robeson, questioning his artistic creation. Robeson conversely objected to what he saw as a demeaning portrayal of Negroes getting drunk as an escape when they were more likely to be punished by the white “boss” for showing spirit and talking back. Robeson persisted though and sang his new lyrics in performance

However by 1938, and probably inspired by the resistance to Fascism shown by the Spanish and international working class,  Robeson made far greater changes to the lyrics that completely changed its meaning and delivery.

Instead of “Ah gits weary / An’ sick of tryin’; / Ah’m tired of livin’ / An skeered of dyin’, / But Ol’ Man River, / He jes’ keeps rolling along!”, Robeson now sang, “But I keeps laffin’/ Instead of cryin’ / I must keep fightin’; / Until I’m dyin’, / And Ol’ Man River, / He’ll just keep rollin’ along!

The changes made by Robeson shift the portrayal of Joe away from the resigned, stoic character who resents, but ultimately has to accept, the White Boss world that he lives in, to a character who will persevere, however great the challenge, to change that world.  Moreover Robeson not only changes the character of Joe but also the metaphorical nature of the “River” that he sings about. The river changes from an impassive, uncaring fixture of life to a massive force of nature representing the flow of time that will ultimately sweep away the White Boss system and the unjust laws like miscegenation that underpin it. In a few words Robeson transformed the song from tragic acceptance to heroic resistance. That’s entirely fitting because it was also how Robeson henceforth  lived his own life.

“The artist must elect to fight for freedom or slavery. I have made my choice. I had no alternative,” – Paul Robeson

Robeson first became a hero to the British mining community, in 1940 when he starred in the film Proud Valley as an American sailor stranded in Cardiff who finds work in a Welsh colliery.  In a story, suggested by Robeson himself, his character then leads a delegation of miners in marching to London to demand fairer working conditions from the Government.

In 1949 Abe Moffat, Communist  leader of the Scottish Miners Federation, invited Robeson to Edinburgh where he performed in a benefit concert for the miners at the Usher Hall. Afterwards Robeson visited Newcraighall pit canteen and sang the great American organizing song, “Joe Hill”, for the miners there.

Because of Robeson’s left-wing views the U.S. government denied him the right to travel (1952-57) and he was blacklisted from performing. Called before the House Un-American Activities Committee to repudiate his views and told that if he was a communist he might as well live in Russia he said –My father was a slave and my people died to build this country, and I’m going to stay right here and have a part of it, just like you”.

Robeson was subsequently banned from TV and performing in theatres or concert venues – not by law but by their owners. Even Robeson’s film and records were withdrawn from circulation to deny him royalties. But the Scottish miners were amongst those who did not forget Robeson’s past generosity.  They and the South Wales area rallied to his cause by staging pithead collections which raised several hundred pounds to send to the near destitute performer and his family.

Denied his passport Robeson defied the authorities and managed to participate in the 1957 Welsh Miners’ Eisteddfod, by singing via a transatlantic telephone link. In the concert’s finale the Miners movingly responded by singing -“There’ll Be A Welcome in the Hillside”.  He defied the US authorities again that same year when he sang from a park in Washington (State) to a paying audience of 40,000 over the border in Canada.  After an international campaign – called appropriately, “Let Robeson Sing!” – the Supreme Court was finally forced to reinstate Robeson’s passport in 1958.

Robeson then toured internationally both singing and acting (including singing opera in Moscow and playing Othello at Stratford Upon Avon).  But one debt was outstanding.  In 1960 he returned to Scotland at the request of Abe Moffat’s daughter, Ella Egan. He first sang from the Queen’s Park Bandstand to the crowd who gathered at Glasgow’s May Day Rally and later that month appeared in front of a rapturous audience of 20,000 at the Scottish Miners Gala in Holyrood Park. It was to be his last public appearance in Scotland as, scarred by the racism and blacklisting he had experienced, he suffered from depression and was a virtual recluse between 1963 and his death in 1976.

However Robeson’s influence permeated the Scottish, and American, folk revivals and the 1960’s Black Civil Rights Movement. Robeson’s long and happy association with the Scottish workers movement was also remembered fondly by his son, Paul Robeson Jr., when he accepted the invitation of Colin Fox and the Edinburgh May Day Organising Committee to visit Scotland and speak at Edinburgh’s May Day Rally in 2002. One can only hope that Robeson, his singing and his version of ”Ol Man River” go on to influence further generations of black and working class activists.

Independence Campaign – Tactics for Socialists

Socialists on march for Scottish Independence

The deal between Westminster and Edinburgh has truly launched the debate around the Scottish independence referendum. In this article Kevin Leetion looks at the options facing socialists, how to engage with the official Yes campaign, the prospects for a radical independence campaign and the relationship between the two.

With the independence referendum now less than two years away the respective campaigns are now underway. In the ‘no’ corner we have Better Together, the coalition of the three principal unionist parties who have reasoned that they should pool their resources and energy to argue for the maintenance of the United Kingdom. The opposite corner is mainly occupied by Yes Scotland, the official campaign endorsed by the SNP (as well as the SSP and Greens), which has been criticised by some for a stuttering start and inability to improve polling numbers. Some have also pointed to disagreements between ‘yes’ supporters as a sign of weakness and ineffectiveness. While there may be some validity in the first argument (although Better Together have hardly set the heather alight, so to speak, relying on relentless negativity and fear-mongering) the second somewhat misses the point. The ‘no’ campaign has been conspicuous by its unity: its rejection of universal benefits; its pledge to maintain nuclear weapons; its commitment to the current economic model and continued austerity. However, this is far from a strength.

Choices

Socialists now face a choice- where are our energies best spent and how do we organise ourselves? Is it right that the primary aim is to secure a ‘yes’ vote and that the political choices ought to be left to the first post-referendum election? If instead we believe that a socialist message is vital to ensuring that we actually get a ‘yes’ vote then what implications are there for our orientation towards other aligned and non-aligned independence supporters?

This is not the place to detail all the arguments for independence which have been well covered on the pages of Frontline and elsewhere, however, before deciding what to do we need to remember why we’re doing it. For this purpose, it’s helpful to think of three different types of arguments often cited in support of independence (it’s important to stress that this is not an endorsement of each and every one of the following arguments and is meant to be illustrative rather than comprehensive).

Why Independence?

The first of these we might categorise as inherent reasons- in other words, arguments that say that independence in and of itself would be an advance. This would include, inter alia, arguments like: independence is more democratic as decisions would be taken closer to the people affected by them; independence is the ‘natural state’ for a country and important for national self-esteem; independence would bring about the break-up of the British state which would be a blow to imperialism[i]; and the economic argument, if accepted, that Scotland is net contributor to UK and would therefore be financially better off. At the same time, some will argue that there are inherent reasons against independence e.g. the break-up of the British working class; the weakening of the Scottish voice on the international stage; and the opposing economic argument, if accepted, that Scotland is a net beneficiary and would therefore be worse off under independence. Supporters of independence may either counter that these assertions are subjective or baseless speculation, or would argue that they are outweighed by the positives.

Opportunity

A second set of arguments might be categorised as opportunity-based reasons- that it’s not so much independence that’s the aim, but the possibilities that are opened up that would not be available under the status quo. This might include: the greater likelihood of a abolishing the monarchy; that the Scottish electorate would be inclined to avoid the austerity policies of the Westminster consensus and make a socialist alternative possible; the creation of a fairer,  more democratic polity; and the use of funds for sustainable and egalitarian ends rather than wars of aggression.

Here there may be a degree of overlap with some of the inherent arguments. For instance, the possibility of rejecting Tory rule once and for all is predicated on the idea that independence is more democratic and allows us to make that choice. Indeed, you might say that the very opportunity for a country to build something different, whether it is carried out or not, is an inherent reason to support independence (an extension of the increased democracy argument). What distinguishes the opportunity-based arguments is that they will be in direct competition with those of independence supporters with different political perspectives. For instance, a right-wing opportunity-based argument might be the ability to build a low-tax economy with minimal business regulations in order to attract investment. Either way, these scenarios are not the inevitable consequence of independence, rather a sample of the colours available on the post-referendum pallette.

Changing Terrain

Finally, there are a set of considerations based on the idea that the political terrain of Scotland will change after autumn 2014 as a result not just of the referendum but also of the continuing economic situation that will continue to have the greatest impact on the most vulnerable. No matter the result of the referendum the SNP faces an existential crisis. What does the party that unites a membership and voter-base of hugely divergent political views do when the single issue uniting them disappears? Political realignment may not be immediate but the basis will certainly be there. As such, there are a number of tactical reasons for socialists to fight for independence which would include: independence having greater support amongst the working class and young; the opportunity to work with leftists in other parties (and none) who are, at the very least, people that want change; and the possibility to work on a campaign that asks fundamental questions about how the economy and society are organised and which will undoubtedly capture the public attention.

It would be cynical and dishonest for anyone to base their support for independence entirely on these considerations without accepting any inherent or opportunity-based arguments. Instead we might think of these as ways the left can maximise its influence and rebuild in the context of a campaign to which it would otherwise still be dedicated. There is a future for an organised left, no matter the vote, but there is no other campaign that is so central to the resurgence of the left over the next two years. This means we have to enter into relationships with other supporters in a non-sectarian manner and reach out to new activists.

The categorising of these arguments is not just a taxonomic exercise but a distinction that should help inform the tactical choices that are in front of us. If we are to accept that there are inherent reasons, any inherent reasons, to support independence, and that these outweigh the inherent reasons against independence then it follows that we should orientate our efforts to ensure a ‘yes’ vote. Similarly, if we accept any opportunity-based reasons then we also have to accept that they cannot become a reality without first securing a ‘yes’ vote. As such, one obvious consideration is how best we can ensure a positive outcome to the referendum.

Yes Scotland

There are some on the left who believe that this outcome can only be secured by a disciplined and united ‘yes’ campaign that must put political differences to the side in pursuit of the common goal.  However, there is a second consideration to the opportunity-based reasons for support. We cannot just presume that they will come to pass, neither can we presume that these issues can be dropped for the next two years and neatly picked back up again once the vote has been secured.  There will be pressure from both opponents and proponents of independence, many of whom make up the leadership of the independence movement, for the nascent state to pursue an economic and political model that will ensure there is as much continuity as possible. This can only be challenged if there is a momentum to push beyond the cosmetic change of flags towards substantial and lasting change. This has to be achieved not only by ensuring that radical alternatives are debated and support for them is built but also by ensuring that the campaign itself organises and meaningfully involves as many as possible. This not only increases to chances of a ‘yes’ vote (a friend, neighbour, or colleague is more likely to persuade you than one of the ‘great and the good’) but instils a culture of activism and democratic engagement that should bode well for the new Scottish state. If thousands of activists have actively contributed to securing a ‘yes’ vote then they should be less willing to subsequently sit back and be passive in the vital period following the referendum.

Of course, the importance of raising socialist politics throughout the campaign is not just about getting us in a position to continue the process of transformation beyond 2014 but is also, we would argue, more likely to secure a ‘yes’ vote in the first place. The ‘yes’ campaign needs the votes of those that have been disproportionately let down by the union and a succession of governments, people who are also less likely, in general, to vote. These are people who could be excited by radical ideas, by a vision of a country where their needs and interests are put first for a change. An anaemic, uninspiring, apolitical campaign is insufficient to gain independence.

So how do these considerations fit in with our organisational options? There are some who argue that we should focus our energies within Yes Scotland (YS). Certainly, it is by far and away the biggest organised component of the campaign, officially endorsed not just by the SNP but by the SSP and Greens too. They have already organised a large and successful pro-independence demonstration and have weekly activities in all parts of the country focussed on discussing post-independence options, speaking to undecided voters and gathering 1,000,000 signatures.

Radical Independence Conference

An alternative lies in the building of the Radical Independence Conference (RIC) as a means to propagate a leftist alternative to the official campaign. A start has been made with the inaugural conference due in November and well-attended organising meetings held in Edinburgh and Glasgow. It is noticeable from meetings thus far how many young people are involved, and others who are unencumbered by the negative experiences of the SSP split. In terms of building relationships and working with people who are crucial to the future of the left, the RIC is crucial.

YS is sometimes attacked as a mouthpiece of the Scottish Government, and there is a habit of conflating SNP policy with its own. At the very least, the RIC provides a space for discussing and promoting the opportunities presented by independence that a broad and ostensibly politically neutral campaign such as YS ever can. However, while YS certainly has to do more to convince people that it is not merely an extension of the SNP, the day-to-day work in which it’s engaged and the sheer scale of the campaign makes it integral to securing a ‘yes’ vote[ii]. While some may talk about building RIC so that it will come to lead the movement over the next two years this does not reflect the reality of the situation.  There is already a level of involvement in YS from people of all political persuasions that cannot be competed with within this time-scale. If the left had been in a stronger position over the last couple of years then perhaps this dynamic would be different but as it is the aim should not be to replace Yes Scotland, but to work critically and constructively within it, while simultaneously building RIC to push beyond 2014. To spurn the opportunity to work with thousands of activists, many with similar political views and ambitions as ourselves, would be nonsensical. If nothing else, how do we expect to propagate a radical message if we pass on the forum where we can work and build relationships with a sizeable number of people with whom we’d expect to find sympathy? A refusal to work with YS closes off avenues of engagement with pro-independence activists and considerably restricts our wider outreach- this is counter-productive in terms of securing a ‘yes’ vote, promoting a socialist alternative, and rebuilding the left beyond 2014.

Diverse Campaigning

The SSP has chosen to endorse both YS and RIC. This is right. While it is a challenge in terms of time and resources it is only this approach that can work. Indeed, there are even more organisations that are being built by socialist activists. The biggest of these is perhaps Women for Independence, which is working to address a problem not just with the campaign but with politics and society in general- ensuring that women have a voice. They are adopting an approach of listening as much as talking and include activists from across the political spectrum. Again, this is consistent with doing what needs to be done to secure a ‘yes’ vote while working with others with whom you can build positive relations going forward. Another smaller group, Trade Unionists for Independence, has the primary aim of building a network of activists to challenge the dominant arguments heard in the regional committees and branches of the unions, getting into areas where the SNP has limited reach and YS may not see as a priority.  Again, it is drawing together activists from different parties (including Labour) and none. Neither of these organisations see themselves as in competition with the official campaign, but do a job that complements the single YS objective of campaigning for a ‘yes’.

The aim for socialists is to create an environment where genuinely democratic and radical politics can take hold. To do that we need to work to get a ‘yes’ vote and promote radical alternatives- these are not mutually exclusive (the latter will contribute to the former). People need to mobilise and be inspired on a scale not seen in the last 10 years and that needs SSP members and others to maximise avenues of influence and get out to stalls and meetings. The campaign has started- we can’t get left behind.


[i] One might argue that the ‘break-up of the British state’ depends as much on the choices made after the referendum as much as the act of independence itself, in which case it should be considered amongst the arguments in the following paragraph.

[ii] A look at their website shows 30 official events for the month of November 2012 and there are likely to be even more organised locally by groups of activists, covering all parts of Scotland.